I was sad to discover that I can no longer find an old photograph of my senior year English teacher--Dr. Bird, no less--who sits beaming from a rickety chair in our school’s cafeteria. He wore a mustache and longish, albeit receding, hair better suited to a man half his age. But his clothes always outshone his tonsorial habits. Despite the years that have passed, I can recall the elements from that missing photo: a blue and white bengal striped shirt; a navy foulard bow tie, tied without precision; a burgundy sweater with a deep V; a pecan and cream checked odd jacket with rust overcheck; medium gray flannels; shoes of snuff suede with crepe soles. This was dressing in odd elements at its finest, possessed of an elusive tension between propriety and indifference.
I find myself dressed in casual separates more often than not too. My odd jackets and odd trousers are made of the usual suspects: flannels and tweeds in cooler months; linen and cotton for our precious window of warmth. I like to wear a jacket to casual dinners out, but wouldn’t hesitate to appear in flannel trousers and a lightweight sweater over an open-necked shirt to a family gathering, even on the holidays. I suppose ease and practicality are the guiding principles, but it happens not without difficulty.
There is a latent complexity when dressing in odd elements, the most obvious example of which might be pattern (or its absence). Striped tailored garments do not work as separates because they shout business--a condition which defeats the premise of casual dress. Checks do, although often awkwardly in combination, and solid worsteds are right out as their smooth and even surface belies their formality. Eh... except for worsted trousers, but only those executed in mottled gray, and possibly olive; blue worsted trousers look orphaned from a suit (but can look dashing in cotton or linen). And this is well before we broach the crucial matter of Fairisle.
Confounding--and enough to drive one to dress exclusively in the practical navy suit (and is likely why smart public figures, like politicians, usually do). I admire the navy suit, but what a drab place it would be if there were no flannel, or, worse, tweed. It becomes obvious that just as we require sombre hues and solids when we wish to convey seriousness, so too are patterns, color and texture necessary when leisure is the goal. So how do we navigate more casual clothes?
Questions like this leave the door open for rules and it is at this crossroads that we arrive at the counterintuitiveness of casual dress: it is far, far more challenging to do successfully than more formal correctness. The options are many more than those proscribed by greater formality, but the line between dégagé and indignity remains terribly thin. Put simply, the choices are infinite, the guidelines few, and error lurks freely.
To my mind, masters of casual dress (like the inimitable Dr. Bird) operate by basic principles that, when applied in concert, create that covetable impression that survives long after photographs are lost. My suspicion is these broad strokes concern texture, scale and color, but I would be flattered to hear what my knowledgeable readers have to say. If there is interest, I’ll compile the results into a snappy post.